Toby Litt’s new novel Patience tells the story of two junior-high-aged boys who have recently become fast friends. Although they are quite different, they share an interest in freedom and adventure. Elliot, the novel’s protagonist, embraces their therapeutic aspects, advocating
“that if you can’t go wild you end up going mad because all people need to go wild. . . . I mean lose control in a way that gets the inside out like screaming does.”
Jim, the newcomer to the institution in which they are housed, is more interested in exploring his new environment and rebelling against the authority of the nuns and nurses.
There’s a reason that their ideas about adolescent-boy freedom include no alcohol or video games, no dates or dancing, no smoking or fast cars.
You see, Elliot is confined to a wheelchair. He has no control over his neck, which causes his head to flop from side to side. He’s a “spazzer” with no arms; to us “normals” he is basically unintelligible aside from a few grunts and groans, punctuated by drools of saliva. He and Jim will eventually create a language through which they communicate.
Jim is blind and mute.
These two “institutional boys” live on the second floor of a Catholic children’s home managed by nuns in the late 1970s. Their ward is stratified by the physical and athletic demarcations of a elementary/junior high school, although the categories are different: the floppy, the thumpy, the spazzy, the blind. The rigid and the silent. Bullies and the bullied.
Elliot is a musically-gifted savant who’s been living in this institution for eight or nine birthday or Christmas cards; he tracks the passage of time based on their arrival from his family. He often sits in the same spot, scrutinising his environment and describing the mundane with a mathematical precision:
“The drops of paint that landed on the wall and skirting landed as ovoid shapes on a diagonal axis whereas those that hit the flooring were generally round and halved by a stippling of smaller droplets.”
But he is also an adolescent male. After catching sight of the knees of a girl in the ward, he shows “normal” hormonal awakening:
“[No thinker] can help me believe there is a greater sight than sight itself nor a greater insight than that there is no greater sight than sight Amen.”
Elliot is not unaware of beauty in nature, either: “I have more than once seen a real rainbow.”
Elliot recognises the obvious limitations that have been levied against his ability to communicate effectively and with sufficient celerity to prevent others from harming themselves. He suffers in abject powerlessness as a wardmate swallows a button and chokes to death. Yet he also believes that he is more fortunate than some of his peers because he can use his imagination and intellect to entertain himself. “I am never bored.”
Jim’s arrival on the ward is the catalyst for the novel’s action. Elliot senses a quality in him and knows that his life is going to be radically transformed:
“I do not know what it was made me so excited that [first] night . . . . as he passed smelled him Jim and he smelled of sea-saltiness as he had just come from the sea which I had never seen but had heard was salty and this salty smell was free and healthy and of outdoors not antiseptic which made me know he was special.”
Jim resembles a mythical creature, a god from a part of the world that is beyond Elliot’s experience, a symbol of renewal and rebirth. He rearranges Elliot’s conception of time. The period before his arrival is dubbed pre-Jim time:
“Jim had changed time for me. . . [he] filled it with events more significant than any since the day I was given into care by my parents.”
Although early in the novel Elliot mentions how his life was changed by a drug called Lioresal1 that was developed to treat muscle spasms, the novel focuses his recalling the momentous events that transpired over the mere 50 or so days during which Jim is a member of the ward.
This is an incredibly moving story of two intelligent, imaginative, brave boys who invent a form of communication that is grounded on repeated listenings to the Beatles’ red and blue cassettes.2, 3 They join forces to defeat a bully and build on their “disadvantages” and “limitations” and embark on a brief but intense adventure that is breathtakingly vivid and death-defying. Their journey is short and intense, mystical and mesmerising. And utterly believable. I found myself so absorbed in what Elliot and Jim were accomplishing that I nearly forgot to remember that these boys are “cripples” and “spazzers” and that I’m supposedly “normal”.
Any Cop?: I defy you to keep your dry eyes dry throughout the novel’s last 30 or 40 pages. I defy you. The feat of humanity pulled off by Mr. Litt knocked me for more than a few loops. The epithet “stunning” gets tossed around too much on blurbs, so I retract it. Supply your own favourite synonym for excellent. Trust me, it will be appropriate.